By Ken Lutes
I’ve been singing since I was child. It has always brought me joy,” says Denver jazz vocalist and composer Tina Phillips, who also teaches private vocal lessons.
“Some people don’t realize the depth of what I do, that I really am a full-time musician. I’m a serious performing musician. I have dedicated my life to music.”
During a recent visit to her home in the Sloan Lake neighborhood, Phillips spoke about difficult challenges that she and artists of all kinds face in this country.
“[To be] an artist in this country, whether you’re a dancer, a visual artist, a photographer, or a musician, you have to work your butt off constantly. The economy can change, and clubs constantly go [out of business].”
She said the biggest challenge is staying positive while you’re trying to make a living, and not giving up. The business side of the career can discourage artists, too.
“People think that musicians just go out and perform, and they don’t realize how much time it takes to talk to club owners, or find venues; or to put contracts together and hire the other musicians and put the music charts together; and to produce a concert and make sure everybody gets paid. Being a musician is a full-time job, and the performance is the small part of it.”
Once the business end is settled, she concentrates on the performance, the fun part, the part that connects her to “the brilliance of music.”
“I’ve always loved jazz,” she said, “and I knew that if I wanted to be serious about music I’d have to go to music school. I became a vocal performance major at CU Denver and studied that for years. I got my skills up and made some connections.
“I had my son, got a divorce; I knew that I needed to support my son, so instead of continuing with school I started performing professionally and teaching.
“When my son was in grade school, I had a part-time retail job that enabled me to take care of him, and I did that for about 10 years until I was able to perform and teach full time. I wake up every day just totally grateful and in awe that I get to do this.
“There are two things I’m most proud of and they’re equal. I’m most proud of my son – the man that he is – and his family. And I’m most proud of my having been able to raise him as a single parent while I continued to do my music and succeed at that.”
Phillips grew up in a family of musicians. Her grandfather was a professional saxophone player, and his brother was a professional jazz piano player in Denver. When they were growing up in southern Colorado, they had a family band, playing mariachi music. In the 1970s, she bought a Martin D-18 and took some guitar lessons. That inspired her to start singing and performing.
She says she’s attracted to the brilliance of music, whether a tune is a really sad song about the emotions of life and life experiences or a more fun song like “Cheek to Cheek.” The artists who play and sing these songs with such depth of emotion and experience inspired her to want to perform.
“I was attracted to the way [Thelonious] Monk wrote, the way Bill Evans played, the way Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn sang a tune and inspired me to want to do those tunes.”
Her students also inspire her.
“The other day, one of my students, who just graduated from the Denver School of the Arts as a performance vocal major, wanted to work on a tune that I hadn’t sung for 30 years: ‘Am I Blue,’ a song from the 1920s. When she left, I started woodshedding that tune and fell in love with it all over again.”
Another important aspect of Phillips’ life is composing music and writing poetry, which she’s done since she was 6, when she wrote her very first song. Composing is “a big part of my life and what keeps me sane as I walk on this planet.”
Over the years that Phillips has “been blessed” to make a living doing what she does best, she has maintained a modest yet comfortable lifestyle. She says she could not now buy the charming home she lives in, located a scant half-block from Sloan’s Lake Park.
“My son is 38, so I’ve lived and worked in this space for 37 years. As a musician, I don’t know how I’ve been able to do this. To me, it’s miraculous.”
Phillips is working on more originals and eager to get back into a recording studio. She and mentor musician Art Lande have been talking about doing a jazzy Beatles night.
“Not sure just when that will come together, but I have some charts ready to go. I want my music to bring healing and joy to the people who come to the concerts – that’s the prayer I say before each show.”
Phillips’ love of music is the wind in her sails that keeps her going. Her dedication to the craft has maintained her professional presence on Denver’s music scene for more than 40 years.
“I wake up every single day, look around, and I say, ‘Thank you, God.’ I feel so humble to have such a beautiful space to live and work in; that is so inspiring.”